Ron Mann / Canada / 2014 / 95 mins
Profile documentaries are tricky – especially when your subject is dead and happens to be an icon with a name synonymous with a certain kind of filmmaking. Ron Mann’s punchy, intelligent and enlightening doc on the American filmmaking titan Robert Altman is a treat for fans and the unconverted alike. Altman is an essay film that doesn’t waste time with talking head obituary-lite testaments about the memory and work of an endlessly creative man; Mann instead opts for voiceovers from Altman’s wife and children, stopping on only a handful of familiar hollywood faces to illuminate the audience on what “Altmanesque” means to them in a single phrase. This is a portrait composed almost entirely of archive footage from his theatrical releases, behind the scenes, unreleased short films, home movies, interviews, lecture tours and still photographs.
Kathryn Reed Altman’s recollections paint a man pathologically uninterested in pleasing studio brass. From his early days on paint-by-numbers tv programs, where he injected experimental elements of realism, to beginning production on the Oscar nominated Gosford Park without secure financial backing. The recurring statement throughout every era of his career is: ‘_________ was out of town, so we shot it anyways!’ His aversion to making films for the sake of a box office return and his belief that film has the ability to elevate and enlighten us of the human condition is refreshing: ‘I make gloves and they sell shoes’ he once said of his relationship with Hollywood after the failure of Popeye.
After discussion of the The Player and Short Cuts, Mann’s analysis of the films wanes as he chooses to focus on the filmmaker’s very quiet struggle with his heart condition and inevitable preoccupation mortality. Although Altman is brisk, it makes great efforts to remind us of the innovations in sound recording, camera work, ensemble storytelling and the nurturing collaborative process that typified Robert Altman’s 50 year career. It’ll leave you wanting more, but luckily there are 40 films that’ll help to scratch that cinephile itch.